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Olive Cook – a brief biography

Olive Smith (née Cook) was not a photographer; she was
Edwin Smith’s wife and immensely important in his life and work.
Olive Cook by Edwin Smith (1946-47)

It is apt, and perhaps inevitable, that Olive Cook’s first book was Cambridgeshire: Aspects of a County, for she was born, brought up and educated in Cambridge.  In Cambridgeshire she wrote, ‘It is not easy to give an impression of a place to which one has never been a stranger’; and ‘Every native of the town and all the men and women who have spent three years of their lives among those images of splendour and repose must forever cherish memories of Cambridge.‘  Olive’s parents and grandparents were Cambridge people too.=

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The Olive Cook Archive

The 1964 National Trust calendar, with photographs by Edwin Smith

I suppose we should let Edwin Smith’s photographs speak for themselves and speak for him; they are his legacy and life’s work. But anyone reading the articles on this site will soon realise that we are not content to let it rest there. We believe that to understand the work you also need to understand the artist, what drove him, what influenced him and how he worked. To take one example, Edwin’s architectural photography is more than just that; his cottages, churches and great houses embody his romantic view of the world. They capture a world that he feared was passing in his lifetime and they must be understood as both art and propaganda.

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Olive Cook Bibliography

This is an attempt to catalogue all of the books which featured Olive Cook either as primary author or contributor, or which contain information about her and her work. It is doubtless incomplete, but goes some way to illustrate the enormous output she achieved during her lifetime.

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Olive Cook and Matrix

The cover of Matrix 23

In Matrix 23, where the article by Lucy Archer about Olive Cook appears, John Randle wrote a short note about his long association with her as a contributor to the journal.
John and Rosemary Randle are owner/founders of The Whittington Press, publisher of The Matrix (‘by far the finest periodical of the book arts of the twentieth century, surpassing even the seven-volume Fleuron issued in the 1920s’), which is now in its thirtieth year.

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Matrix – A View of the Cotswolds

The cover of Matrix 21

This article was published in Matrix 21 in 2001. Written by Olive Cook, it was to introduce the last book of Edwin’s work that she would oversee in her lifetime.

I have a copy of ‘A View of the Cotswolds’ and the reproduction quality of the images is superb, akin to the photogravure process that Edwin loved. The overall production of the book is of the usual high standard associated with the Whittington Press, with a cover featuring an Edwin Smith linocut.

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Matrix – Novelty and the Sense of Continuity

This article by Olive Cook appeared in Issue 20 of Matrix and in it she shows her vehement distaste for contemporary art and architecture and the ‘shock of the new’, making a temporal leap to compare modern trends with her perceptions of how the ‘new’ was expressed and experienced in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

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Matrix – Photography and the Visual Arts

The cover of Matrix 18, Winter 1998

This article, written by Olive Cook, first appeared in Matrix 18, published by The Whittington Press in Winter 1998. It is reproduced here with permission.

Olive Cook was married to Edwin Smith and a published author, academic and artist in her own right. She did not suffer those whom she considered to be ‘artistic fools’ gladly and some of the tone of that dislike for the pretentious comes across in this article. She was however a staunch believer in the power of photography to capture ‘the genius of place’ and she devoted much of her life after Edwin’s early death to promoting his work as a photographer.

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Matrix – The Art of Tirzah Garwood

The cover of Matrix 10, Winter 1990

This article, written by Olive Cook, first appeared in Matrix 10, published by The Whittington Press in Winter 1990. It is reproduced here with permission.

Olive Cook was a close friend of Tirzah Garwood and this beautifully written short biography is a one of the few detailed references to an artist who is often overlooked in the history of English art and design. As the wife of Eric Ravilious, she was somewhat overshadowed by his reputation but nevertheless produced a large body of work that is accomplished and significant in its own right. Her son, James Ravilious, was also a noted artist and photographer, referenced elsewhere on this site.

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